Desperate, dying: Liberia's war victims wait for George Bush to make up his mind

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The Independent Online

Gunmen and their victims lie side by side in the cramped wards of Monrovia's John F Kennedy hospital. Seah Kingsley, a grief-stricken mother, sits silently on a bed. On her knee is balanced her six-year-old daughter, Finda, bandages wrapped over her eyes, blown out by a bomb.

The pair fled to a camp near the US embassy when fighting broke out last month and rebels neared the city gates. But where they sought sanctuary, they found tragedy. A mystery shell landed amid the huddling refugees, killing dozens.

"There was a big boom and then the blood was shooting from her eyes," said Seah, who believes the bomb was fired by the forces of President Charles Taylor. "Maybe they feel I will go to the Americans for rescue," she said.

In the next room, Colonel George Lasimeto, from the government forces, is recovering from a gunshot wound to the leg. "The civilians, they are suffering too much," he says in lilting Krio. "It's very, very kind for the Americans to come and cease the fire for the citizenry."

They are not the only ones praying for help. Liberians, whose country was founded by returning US slaves 150 years ago, are begging President George Bush to send US peacekeepers. He says he will consider it, and has sent an advance team of military advisors to assess the position.

Greeted with whoops of joy by desperate Monrovians, they may report back by the end of this weekend. It could signal the start of a deployment of as many as 2,000 US troops. But while Liberians feel they have a special relationship with Mr Bush, whether he feels the same is by no means clear.

In public at least, the military team is focusing on humanitarian needs. Analysts say this is either a sign of preparation for a carefully directed US deployment. Or it is a fudge to let Mr Bush donate money, and not men, to one of Africa's most troubled countries.

Until recently, not just the US but the entire Western world virtually ignored Liberia's plight. War has spluttered on for years. Aid agency presence is relatively low and talk of foreign involvement would have invoked hoots of derision.

But since two recent offensives by the shadowy Liberians United for the Restoration of Democracy (LURD) - and its coincidence with Mr Bush's trans-African visit - Liberia has found itself flung into the international spotlight. And in the small, sweaty seaside capital of Monrovia, suffering is on a truly grand scale.

There is no electricity or running water. About five aid agencies struggle to meet the most basic needs. Expatriate UN officers have abandoned the city, leaving local relief workers to manage as they can. More than half a million people have crammed into the city centre to avoid fighting in the suburbs. They live anywhere they can find shelter.

The sinister hilltop Masonic Temple - a cross between a cathedral and a massive banqueting hall - was once home to the local Freemasons who combined secrecy with shadowy local beliefs. Some locals believed the Masons, who included the former president, William Tolbert, committed rituals such as child sacrifice inside. But when fighting erupted again, they vanquished those fears and broke down the doors.

Now the sticky halls are heaving with more than 10,000 people who sleep shoulder by jowl on the floors and cook their meals on the steps outside under a crumbling statue of a former grandmaster. In the foul, thick air of the basement, James Kollie and his wife lie on a square of filthy foam, reading from the Book of Psalms.

They sprinted from their home two weeks ago when a rocket exploded in the street. Later, Rose's sister was raped. "It's the Americans we need," she said. "Only they can bring peace, and peace we want."

Across town, a beleaguered President Taylor roams between his three mansions, pondering his next move. Circled by rebels and wanted by international war crimes prosecutors, he preaches to the stream of visiting journalists of his belief in God. He may need it. The previous Liberian president to attempt escape from such a siege, Samuel Doe, had his ears cut off in a brutal public execution. As a grim reminder, the video of the killing is still available on the streets.

Mr Taylor has agreed to an offer of asylum in Nigeria, but says he won't go until peacekeepers arrive. Washington says it won't send anyone until he goes first. Compromise may be possible.

A force of 1,000 West African peace-keepers, drawn from the regional ECOWAS bloc, is already being mustered. America has sent advisers to neighbouring Ghana to assist in preparations; it has also contributed $10m, according to some reports.

But few believe that African peace-keepers alone will be enough. The last time the neighbouring West African states intervened in Liberia, Mr Taylor intimidated, manipulated and bribed them. In some cases, Nigerian troops actually took part in the looting of civilians instead of preventing it.

As a Firestone cargo ship sidled up the crumbling quays of Monrovia yesterday - recalling the days when Liberia was largely a rubber plantation for the US multinationals - waiting casual labourers said they had little trust in a solely West African force. "We know that our African brothers get biased. They can be bribed," said Isaac Bundor, 24. "Too much money greed," nodded his colleague, Sam Kiazolu.

The ghosts of Somalia haunt Mr Bush. In 1993, 18 US soldiers were killed and their bloodied corpses dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, humiliating America and sparking a peace-keeping retreat from Africa. Since then, Washington has been happy to donate boatloads of grain to the victims of African conflicts. But it has a knee-jerk reaction to risking American lives to preventing those disasters in the first place.

But analysts say Liberia is not Somalia. Local leaders say that a few well-trained soldiers could disperse the drug-crazed, ill-disciplined kid soldiers that make up most of the fighters. "Those young fellows would just throw away their guns and run away," the Catholic Archbishop, Michael K. Francis, one of President Taylor's most outspoken critics, said.

Such a US intervention would follow the example set by Britain in Sierra Leone and France in Ivory Coast, he said. In both cases, a relatively small but muscular intervention by well-armed Western troops sparked ceasefires. And the US should remember its Cold War debt to Liberia, he added.

During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan turned a blind eye to terrible human rights abuses by President Samuel Doe to protect the CIA listening post in Monrovia, the largest in sub- Saharan Africa. Now Liberia is almost strategically worthless, the United States appears a reluctant saviour.

"We are extremely disappointed with this delay," Archbishop Francis said. "For God's sake, they have 150,000 troops in Iraq. Just 500 or 1,000 marines here - would that kill the US?"

In the meantime, desperation is growing. The Archbishop showed a letter he had just received from a Christian pastor inviting him to a ceremony to "join 55 others in breaking some outstanding Satanic covenants over Liberia".

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